Thursday, October 2, 2008

Gosh, Aren't Men Put-Upon? Gosh, Aren't Women Nags?

The last time we saw Hagar the Horrible, he was watching a barbarian giant have a hissy fit for no particular reason. Now he returns to his usual practices of drinking too much alcohol and being nagged by his shrewish wife. The hilarity just keeps on coming.

In some ways, Hagar is a bit of a departure from the norm of Comics That Comment on American Society While Pretending to Be Set Elsewhere. It certainly does comment on American society (particularly on American taxes) every once in a while, but unlike, say, The Wizard of Id, it takes its setting seriously. Hagar really is a Viking. He is forever raiding various castles, most of which seem to be in England. In the winter, his house is buried under the snow (though he does still seem to get quite a bit of daylight). Wikipedia* tells us that Hagar the Horrible is actually based loosely on Henrik Ibsen's The Vikings at Helgeland, so hey, there's even a literary precedent here.

However, the Viking setting has utterly nothing to do with the fact that Hagar is still immersed in the daring, edgy sexual politics of 1973. Perhaps the most enduring running gag of the strip--and there are many, many running gags in this strip--is the concept of Helga as a fat harridan who is keeping Hagar away from his rightful place among beer-swilling warriors. She is not a Viking-specific figure but a comic-strip stereotype who is sisters under the skin with Martha Halftrack (Beetle Bailey), Blanch (The Wizard of Id), and Cora Dithers (Blondie). Women, hey? You marry a smoking hot little number (or, in the case of Blanch, an ugly fortune-hunter), and before you know it, she's put on three hundred pounds and started nagging you about your proclivity for mead. Funny old world, innit?

This tired, insulting stereotype would make me want to slay someone if not for the knowledge of how long it had been around.** Helga et al are really only slightly updated versions of the stereotypical figure who informed Chaucer's Wife of Bath, though admittedly, the Wife had an actual personality and quite a lot of depth to go with her shrewish ways. Regard the comic below. Helga and Hagar are playing out a medieval-style battle of the sexes, with the antifeminist portrait of Helga balanced by Hagar's world-weary attraction to anything that is slightly intoxicating and doesn't resemble Helga. Helga's overbearing nature identifies her closely with the woman of Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) 25:23-36, whose wickedness destroys the life and sucks out the soul of the man. Note Helga's reference to "horns" (an indication of cuckoldry). She may be saying that Hagar's horns will "fall off" if he lies to her, but what she means is, "Neither of our children has anything to do with your sperm. I have been sleeping for years with any barbarian warrior who wanders over our land. Little Hamlet is actually Lucky Eddie's son. You hear that? Lucky Eddie's son! Even Lucky Eddie is more virile than you are, you fat, lazy moron! Why on Middle Earth don't you go out and build a mead hall?"

Why update Helga? Everyone knows all women are like that, right? Right? I mean...why would our perceptions change over the course of six hundred years?

*Which, as an academic, I revile and reject. Out, Satan. Out, I say.
**Actually, that kind of makes me want to slay someone even more.

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